I’ve read 17 novels by Iris Murdoch, but about 14 of those I read more than a decade ago and in some cases almost 20 years ago. Most recently I re-read The Italian Girl in 2016 and it made me think that maybe Murdoch and I were no longer compatible. It was with some fear then that I picked up the somewhat largish novel The Philosopher’s Pupil. Thankfully my reassessment of The Italian Girl is not an indicator of how I feel about Murdoch in general. In fact, Murdoch–at least in this novel–is too good for me to risk using my own prose to critique hers, so it’s time for a bullet point review. (“Huzzah” shouted the crowd.)
- I loved this book. There were more than a few moments when I rolled my eyes to the point where, if this had been a lesser novel, I would have thrown it across the room. Yet my overall interest and delight in reading it was too great to let a little thing like exasperation ruin the experience.
- The novel is typical of Murdoch’s tendency towards big casts of characters all up in each other’s business, hopelessly and helplessly entwined and falling in love and hate left and right. Soap operas for Oxford dons or others of their ilk.
- If Philip Roth or some other august man of letters had written some of these male characters I would flame them for their chauvinism and outright creepiness. The central luminary in the book, John Robert Rosonov, is not only an asshole (yes, an asshole, an appellation none other than Nancy Pearl “liked” on Twitter), but his big secret is beyond creepy. Flesh crawling grossness. And most of the characters act like it’s a mere foible.
- If Philip Roth or some other august man of letters had written some of these female characters I would have screamed at the book in rage. With little exception, the women in The Philosopher’s Pupil fall in love with the most dreadful men and they rarely have any qualms with that. They know the men are dreadful, sometimes violently so, but their love for them is so total and deep they can’t imagine being without the insufferable oafs. (Or would that be oaves? lol) What in the world was Murdoch trying to convey? Her women are not dingbats by any means, but still, I didn’t get the feeling that she was judging the men at all. Their bad behavior was just depicted as part of the landscape. Just the way it was. But goodness, this isn’t ancient history, it was published in 1983.
I have torched novels for lesser failings than this one has, so why do I love it? Because despite some characters and situations that make one think “oh brother”, the world Murdoch depicts is fascinating, her prose is a delight, and it’s so full of big ideas. In fact, one could also have a problem with the lengthy passages on philosophy, but if you are in the mood for that kind of thing, it is just the kind of thing you will like.
The Philosopher’s Pupil has reignited my love for Murdoch. So happy there are more to read and re-read. Alas, I should mention that I supposedly read this book in 2005, but at no point while reading it recently did I for one minute think I might have read it. I don’t know how I could blank so entirely on this book. I guess I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t have re-read it so soon otherwise.